TORONTO – There is, according to conventional wisdom, a hangover effect for hitters facing a knuckleball pitcher, a disruption of timing that can sometimes linger for days afterwards.
Logically, it makes sense, given that trying to hit a fluttering pitch coming in somewhere between 70-80 mph is an entirely different animal than being geared up and ready for 90-plus with hard, darting action.
A key question for the Toronto Blue Jays, now that a post-season berth is within their grasp, is whether or not there’s an actual effect, and if there is, how they might be able to leverage any such edge with R.A. Dickey, who starts Friday’s opener against the Tampa Bay Rays, in a playoff series.
The numbers for the team’s pitchers in the 20 games they’ve faced the same team the day after a Dickey start so far this season (and we’re going to focus solely on this season for a read on what’s happening with this pitching staff) offer some interesting but not necessarily definitive answers.
In those outings, Blue Jays pitchers have posted a 3.33 earned-run average, nearly half a run better than the club’s overall 3.77 this season, a number that quietly ranks fourth in the American League.
While that suggests a bump, peripherals such as WHIP, strikeouts per nine innings and home runs per nine innings are virtually identical, with the variances not enough to suggest such a significant difference.
The same goes for the type of contact pitchers are surrendering.
Even if you look at Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, a statistic that aims to isolate a pitcher’s performance, there’s a noteworthy difference, going from 4.04 overall to 3.76 in games after Dickey.
Deciding on what and how much to read into it, however, is the tricky part.
“I think there’s something to it and that’s just based on the naked eye, watching it and talking to other hitters and knowing what it does to you during the course of that game,” says pitching coach Pete Walker. “Hitters hate it. You’ll see some good hitters over the course of the season, depending on what kind of game it is, they might not be in the lineup. But it definitely disrupts their timing, they don’t like hitting knuckleballs and there’s a reason, it takes them a little bit to get back to that rhythm of seeing a hard slider, and a sinker and a four-seam fastball.
“Maybe it doesn’t show in the numbers sometimes, but it definitely affects them mentally, too.”
That part is impossible to measure, but to find an example of the potential impact, think back to the Blue Jays’ trip into New York in August, when they ended up sweeping the Yankees, who scored just one run in the three-game series.
In the 10 games prior, the Yankees had scored 90 runs, but they faced knuckleballer Stephen Wright of the Boston Red Sox on the Wednesday night before seeing Dickey on Friday. They scored just once against Dickey, then were shut out in games started by David Price and Marco Estrada.
By no means should that take credit away from the performances of Price and Estrada, but Yankees third baseman Chase Headley did say the knuckleball left them discombobulated.
“You know when you’re going really well as a team, probably the last thing you want to run into is a knuckleballer,” Headley told New York media at the time. “We ran into them (twice in three days). It’s just so much different than what you’re used to. That’s just part of it. You have to be able to make adjustments and unfortunately we scuffled a little bit over the weekend (against the Blue Jays).”
Estrada, who has followed Dickey in the same series nine times this season feels there’s something to it, but also isn’t sure how much of an impact it makes.
“We joke around and call it the Dickey Effect,” he says. “When we went to New York and he started the first game, I thought that made a huge difference because it felt like the next two games, which was Price and myself, that was the best I’ve thrown against them. I don’t know if it’s because he led it off and messed up their timing, or we just pitched pretty good games. But it did seem to help a little bit.”
The statistical bump hasn’t necessarily translated into more wins, as the Blue Jays are just 10-10 in those 20 post-Dickey starts, but three of the losses came in games started by rookie Daniel Norris while two others were while Estrada just started to transition back into the rotation from the bullpen.
Regardless, to expect the effect to be all-encompassing is unfair, as it’s near impossible to disrupt nine big-league hitters for days on end. Still, simply disrupting a couple of hitters may be enough to make an impact, and Dickey has seen hitters alter their approaches against him.
“I know people on other teams that do not like to face the pitch, whether it’s coming from me or someone else,” says Dickey. “If I know that ahead of time and they’re in the game, well, chances are it’s going to affect them in some way. Now, let’s pretend for a moment that seven of the nine hitters couldn’t care less who’s on the mound, knuckleball or not. Well, if you’re just talking about two, that’s still a significant part of the lineup and that may be what equals the difference. If it impacts even one guy in the lineup for multiple games, then it’s a significant difference.”
Walker makes a similar point in trying to explain the differences in ERA and FIP post-Dickey.
“It could be one or two guys in the lineup, what it did to their timing, that’s when you get the weak contact,” says Walker. “One or two guys could be the difference in the game, in a couple of runs or a run, and that wins or loses you a game. …
“You get used to that knuckleball and it’s a different type of approach. All of a sudden your timing is off and they may not be getting the swings that they’re looking for.”
Russell Martin, who’s caught 19 of Dickey’s starts this season, can’t explain the difference but is compelled by the numbers.
“Me personally, I’ve faced R.A. before and then faced somebody the next day and I don’t think it’s ever changed my mindset or changed anything, nothing that I noticed or was conscious of,” he says. “But that’s a great stat.”
Just how great is something the Blue Jays will be mulling over when they structure the order of their post-season rotation.
|181||167||67||56||143||17||19.945||52.73||27.33||10 W, 10 L|